Light shone on artists' strange alliance
'Rita and Douglas', Christchurch Arts Festival, 20 August 2011
Reviewer: Warren Feeney
The Press, 22 August 2011
'A love affair between two of New Zealand's best-known artists is a subject too good for New Zealand theatre to ignore.
Indeed, if it had not existed, it would have been invented. The only reason it has taken so long for the relationship between Rita Angus and Douglas Lilburn to surface is because the detail of their liaison was only discovered in letters by Angus to Lilburn at the Alexander Turnbull Library in 2002.
'Rita and Douglas' traces their relationship in a monologue by Jennifer Ward-Lealand as Angus, detailing their meeting in Wellington in 1941, the miscarriage of her only child and her death in 1970, with Lilburn her companion at her bedside.
Reading from Angus' letters makes this a one-sided version of the relationship and while it encompasses almost 30 years, the physical passion of their affair seems to have been brief, making any dramatic storyline difficult to sustain.
'Rita and Douglas' is more about Angus' state of well-being, making it difficult not to wonder how Lilburn saw their relationship.
This production works best as a multimedia performance, encompassing theatre, sound and installation.
Ward-Lealand extracts all the dramatic potential that Angus' letters are capable of giving up. Two words at the end of most letters, "love Rita", take on multiple levels of meaning, summarising the fluctuating state of the relationship with Lilburn throughout the performance.
Played against screened images of Angus' paintings that seek to illuminate her frame of mind, alongside the inclusion of 30 solo piano pieces by Lilburn played by Michael Houstoun, 'Rita and Douglas' brings surprising new life to both artists' work. Although it remains questionable whether any artist's oeuvre should be perceived as a self-portrait, Angus' landscapes seem both melancholic and sublime in a way that was rarely obvious before, while Lilburn's music emanates all the sadness of a "landscape with too few lovers".'
(Comment: To the best of my knowledge the reviewer here is the director of an art gallery, not a theatre critic. MH)